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How do you quickly adapt surveys of jails in Indian Country during COVID-19?

Adapting COVID-19 questions to the Survey of Jails in Indian Country (SJIC)

The Survey of Jails in Indian Country (SJIC) is the only national data collection that provides annual data by collecting information on the conditions in jail and detention facilities operated by Indian Tribes or the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

The data collection supports the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) activities to collect and improve data on crime and justice in Indian Country, as required by the Tribal Law and Order Act, 2010 (TLOA). Since 2007, the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked Westat to administer a survey every year, and Westat will continue to do so through 2023.

The 2020 survey posed new challenges because of COVID-19. Like other communal living environments, jails and prisons are greatly impacted by the pandemic due to the difficulty of maintaining social distancing between inmates and with staff and high inmate turnover rates within facilities. Given this situation and the need to track data related to the pandemic, BJS added 15 COVID-19-related questions to the SJIC for 2020 and 2021.

As the data collection agent, Westat surveys each jail and detention facility in Indian Country on items such as how many youth and adults are detained and released, conviction status and offenses, staffing numbers, and facility-rated capacity.

For the 2020 survey, newly approved COVID-related questions from BJS were received by Westat in mid-June 2020. The Westat team was survey-ready and on target to field the survey, via emailed fillable PDF and via fax, within 3 weeks, launching surveys to 100 Indian Country facilities in early July. Within that time window, Westat

  • Reformatted the survey to integrate the addendum questions
  • Realigned the database for data collection so that comparisons could be made with all previously completed surveys
  • Revised queries and reports generated by the survey management system

New enhancements planned for future collections include a secure, web-based online survey option and tracking system. These enhancements will provide BJS with real-time access to the data through a dashboard and survey management reports and cognitive testing of new survey items.

The last published data from the 2020 surveys indicated the following:

  • Jails in Indian Country held an estimated 2,020 inmates at midyear 2020 (82 facilities), down from 2,890 inmates in 2019 (83 facilities) and higher than the 1,775 inmates (held in 68 facilities) in 2000.
  • The decline in the inmate population resulted from both a reduction in admissions to Indian country jails and expedited  releases from  March to June of  2020. Admissions to Indian  country jails decreased 45% from June 2019 to June 2020.
  • The decline in the Indian country jail population was attributed mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 30% decline in the inmate population between the end of February and the end of March of 2020.
  • From midyear 2019 to midyear 2020, the overall rated capacity of jails in Indian Country dropped from 67% to 48%, while the midyear inmate population was the lowest since 2004.

Read the latest report: Jails in Indian Country, 2019–2020 and the Impact of COVID-19 on the Tribal Jail Population

The survey continues to provide data to policymakers on all adult and juvenile jail facilities and detention centers in Indian country.

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